RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — Tech executives who enjoy what’s called “localism” — or local content on TV and radio stations — might want to do a little personal lobbying when FCC Commissioner Kevin Martin addresses the “Top Tech 2003” event in Charlotte on Wednesday.
Martin is scheduled to talk about “Looking Over the Horizon” at the day-long technology seminar, which is co-sponsored by the Metrolina Entrepreneurial Council and the North Carolina Electronics and Information Technology Association.
But what’s on the horizon right now is the FCC’s expected decision in June to grant large media chains approval to buy more TV stations and for media conglomerates to expand dual ownership of newspapers and TV stations in the same markets.
Martin, a Republican appointed to the FCC in 2001 by President Bush, is expected to go along with the recommendations being pushed by Chairman Michael Powell. Powell, also a Republican, says expanding limits on TV station ownership to reaching 45 percent of the national TV audience from the current 35 percent is needed to protect the future of free over-the-air TV.
Powell also led a badly divided FCC into a quagmire of decisions about telecommunications regulation (such as last-mile shared network, access, sharing of local facilities) that left people on both sides of the argument unhappy.
The media ownership debate was brought right into the Triangle a few weeks back when Duke University played host to an FCC hearing. People on both sides of the argument showed up, with defenders of localism and local ownership led largely by Jim Goodmon, president and chief executive officer of Capitol Broadcasting — the company created by his grandfather. On the other side were representatives of Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns two stations in Raleigh, and NBC, which operates WNCN, the local Peacock network affiliate.
Anyone who has tried to watch Sinclair’s revamped nightly newscast knows what impact chain ownership can have on “localism.” The WB-22 folks canned most of the locals and now inserts bits and pieces of local news around content produced by the corporate suits.
Frankly, it stinks.
I’ll take the Fox News at 10 — which comes from WRAL as part of its duopoly (operating two stations in same market) operation of the Fox affiliate in Durham. Sure, the newscast started as a separate operation when Goodmon took advantage of the FCC duopoly opening to grab the Fox station and now includes the WRAL crew. But at least the content is all local.
As for cross-ownership, what would media coverage be like in the Triangle if McClatchy, which owns The News & Observer, bought WRAL, the top affiliate?
Further media consolidation in Charlotte, the Triad and Atlanta would decrease competition even further.
More alternatives make a difference?
Powell is among those who believes that the rise of the Internet, cable TV and satellite services give consumers enough options to permit further conglomeration. But as Goodmon pointed out at the FCC hearing, by far the most Internet traffic is generated by the big companies.
A side benefit of cable in the Triangle has been Time Warner’s launch of its 24-hour local TV news station, News 14.
But that station also means more competition for WRAL, which already faces network-owned challengers at WTVD (ABC) and WNCN (NBC) plus The N&O. (The Herald Sun remains independently owned.)
Critics of more corporate ownership point to the gobbling up of radio stations that has taken place in recent years. Don Curtis of Raleigh and his Curtis Media Group has expanded its holds steadily, but Curtis remains committed to localism. WPTF is the only Triangle radio station with a strong news team. (Curtis also makes the news available online at triangleradionews.com).
If you like remote DJs, canned programs and distant TV anchors with snippets of local interest, then be sure to congratuate Martin on how he is expected to vote. (By the way, Martin has “local” North Carolina connections. He received his BA from UNC Chapel Hill and Masters in public policy from Duke plus a law degree from Harvard.)
If you like local news and entertainment to be local, bend his ear — before it’s too late.
Rick Smith is managing editor of Local Tech Wire.
Note: Smith recently interviewed Jimmy Goodmon, son of Jim Goodmon, about the challenges Capitol faces and his hopes of keeping the company in the family. See “After Dot Com” in Raleigh Metro Magazine (www.metronc.com ).